Women's Struggles Make Compelling TV

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IT could easily have been a bore, a numbing procession of social and political landmarks. It could have been a self-serving recital of gender battles, accompanied by visuals and pompous narration.

Instead, ``A Century of Women'' is one of the more impressive events offered on TV in recent years. It is a compelling example of how known facts can produce a stunning impact when selected with a sweeping historical sense and explained with insight and passion.

The six-hour-long documentary, which airs on three consecutive nights on TBS at 8:05 p.m. beginning next Tuesday, tells a truly moving story: how American women through the 20th century blazed new roles for themselves - personal, political, and economic - in the face of uncomprehending male hostility and enormous historical odds.

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But this is not a woman's show. Its strength is how it reveals women's struggles to be human struggles, a response to universal needs. Tuesday's opening show, ``Work and Family,'' is a forceful reminder that, for American women, working has not been a career choice but a way to survive, and for mothers a way to feed their children. The women depicted were often discriminated against for attempting to avoid starvation. Through the show's effective mix of devices, you grasp how the experience of immigrant women, for instance, is inseparable from labor history. When you review the fight by Delores Huerta to help Cesar Chavez organize farm workers - as she nursed her babies - you can accept narrator Jane Fonda's statement that ``Latino women and men had a new kind of definition of wife and mother.'' Elsewhere in the opening show, one black woman tells how she used to stand in New York's ``Bronx slave market,'' an empty lot where domestics stood, trying to underbid each other so they'd be hired for a day's work.

The production achieves its effects through a vibrant amalgam of techniques that is hard to classify. They operate on several levels: emotional, imaginative, and factual. The show is a history lesson but also a lesson of the heart, broad in view yet intensely personal, partisan yet persuasively authentic. Though largely documentary, it includes acted sections that tie together wide-ranging yet inherently related categories of struggle, like union rights and the status of mothers and homemakers. In these scripted sections, five generations of a family and friends come together to see a new baby and to talk. The dramatic sections bind the generations together and remind you of the continuity behind the many forms the struggle has taken.

The acted sections are skillfully done by a cast that at first gives no sign that this whole show is basically a lesson. But you know something is up when sociological themes start creeping into the opening program. New values, new priorities, new expectations cause clashes between the generations. ``I don't get it,'' says an exasperated daughter to her mother at one point. ``You get a great job, you get a promotion - you get pregnant!''

Fonda's narration leads viewers through the show's main journey: a potent recounting of how long and desperate the fight has been. The production employs old newsreels, stills, and compelling reminiscences by older women who recall in searing detail the ignominy and hardship endured as they tried to better their lot. Renowned actresses read the words of people like Pauline Newman, a survivor of New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 126 young women in 1911. Well-known modern figures are also interviewed - from poet Maya Angelou to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from actor Roseanne Arnold to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The program continues Wednesday with ``Sexuality and Social Justice,'' and Thursday with ``Image and Popular Culture.'' Each of the show's eclectic parts is a story in itself, yet each keeps an eye on the main theme. You find yourself engrossed in individual fact but propelled to the next point. The parts are facets of the same fundamental message, one the medium seldom delivers with this kind of authenticity and power.

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